Balancing act on Lake Okeechobee as water managers try to protect South Florida from flooding

Parts of dike on critical list of repair

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla - Plumbing jobs don't get any bigger than this one.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is shoring up the nearly 80-year-old Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee, the nation's second largest freshwater lake.  The old dam, which is made of muck and other natural materials, is on the country's critical repair list.

"We have got active points of failure. We actually have water flowing through moving material where it shouldn't be," said Lt. Col. Michael Kinard, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Okeechobee is the Seminole Indian name for "big water."  An extensive 2006 study called the aging dike that contains it "a grave and imminent danger."

Kinard says the nightmare scenario is "a breach." How catastrophic would depend on where it took place.

Nearly $400 million in federal money is being spent to try and ensure that a breach never happens.

One of the areas where repair work is taking place is the stretch of dike between Port Mayaca and Belle Glade. There a concrete wall two feet thick and up to 80 feet deep is being constructed.

The work here has been likened to putting a filling in your tooth, only in this case the drilling will be felt all the way from giant Lake Okeechobee to your water faucet.

"We keep the lake about a foot lower than it was in the past," said Kinard. "That is a foot of water we don't have for water supply."

Strengthen the dike and the big lake, the liquid heart of South Florida, could safely hold more water in times of heavy rainfall. That would mean more lake water ready to resupply those canals crisscrossing South Florida through the canals that refill our precious groundwater in times of drought.  

At the South Florida Water Management District, canal gates are opened and closed from a nerve center.

"All the water flow is monitored right here," said Tommy Stroud, the director of operations, maintenance and construction for the district.  

The C-51 canal outside his office is a reminder of the work at hand.

"We don't really have a shortage of rainfall but we have this balance. In order to prevent flooding we have to discharge water very quickly," said Stroud. "If we could keep it in the system it would be a source of freshwater to use for drinking water or natural systems like irrigation and agriculture."

Everglades restoration is the ultimate, though often elusive goal. It's an ongoing bid to undo man made plumbing and restore the natural flow of water down the river of grass.

"What we really want to do is go right down the center of Florida, through the historic Everglades river of grass and by doing that recharge aquifers, all the way down and bring more water to Everglades National Park," said Kinard.

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